NEW YORK -- They couldn't have asked for a better backdrop.
Major League Baseball kicked off the fifth annual Jr. RBI Classic on Friday night at Hinton Park, a newly refurbished field that rests a stone's throw from Citi Field. Twelve teams from all around the country had gathered to be part of All-Star Week and to celebrate their bright future in baseball and beyond.
RBI, which stands for Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities, involves more than 200,000 kids around the country, and the Jr. RBI divisions account for nearly half that total. The Jr. RBI Classic started Friday morning at parks around Queens, but Hinton Park held a free baseball clinic on Friday night.
MLB held a quick opening ceremony to celebrate both the tournament and the successful renovations at Hinton Park, and then the teams split up in stations to work on their baseball skills. For David James, director of the RBI program, it was the realization of countless hours of work.
"We're really excited to have all these kids here," he said. "We've got the 12 teams participating in the Jr. RBI Classic and an additional 13 teams that are playing in the northeast regional tournament. To give all these kids -- almost 500 of them -- an All-Star experience, we're very pleased with it."
All of the kids have been staying at dormitories on the campus at St. John's University, and they'll play a friendly round-robin tournament over the next few days. When they're not playing, said James, they'll be included in a wide variety of activities that correspond with the All-Star Game at Citi Field.
On Thursday night, for instance, a lot of the kids got a chance to take in a game at the home of the Brooklyn Cyclones. The students -- most of them aged 11 or 12 -- will also get a chance to take in the Futures Game and the Chevrolet Home Run Derby, but for James, there's more to the whole experience.
"One of the neat things last night was with one of the Classic teams," he said. "They're from Los Angeles and there were a number of kids who had never seen the Atlantic Ocean. To be able to go out to Coney Island and see that was great. We have young ladies here from Denver, Colo., and from Detroit, Mich. Going south a little bit, we have teams from Norfolk, Va., and from Prince Georges County, Md. We really try with the Classic to make a selection that is representative of the whole country."
Hinton Park, damaged by Hurricane Sandy and renovated by the Mets and Major League Baseball in conjunction with the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation and the NYC Department of Parks and Renovation, got a workout on Friday night from roughly 150 kids and a few dozen able instructors.
David Newman, the Mets' senior vice president of marketing and communications, said the Mets were thrilled to play host to the Jr. RBI Classic. Newman said that Queens is the most diverse borough in the most diverse city on the planet, and he noted just how close the Mets play to Hinton Park.
"For all of us that work with the New York Mets, our ballpark is right across the way," he said. "During the winter time, when the trees are a little less full, you can see Citi Field. And we can see Hinton Park. And after we saw the storm and just years and years of use of this park -- not just by folks like you, but by people in the community -- this field needed repair so it could be used on an everyday basis."
Steve Salem, the executive director of the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation, said that Hinton Park is a perfect example of the work being done in other cities around the country. Salem credited the Mets and MLB for being the driving forces behind Hinton Park, but he said that field is hardly alone.
The Ripken Foundation could have 50 ballparks built by the end of 2015, he said, and all in inner-city neighborhoods. But there are no boundaries. There are parks being built in Maine and in Washington state, and Salem said there should be as many as 25 new ones by the end of the year.
"We are building these all over the country. It's one of our primary national initiatives," he said. "We call them youth development parks. Each park costs about $1 million, and they're all synthetic turf. They're in tough neighborhoods where the kids can't really play outside, either because it's unsafe or they don't have access to a field to play baseball or football or anything else they want to play."
Salem went on to say that the Hinton Park field is built up to Major League specifications in its drainage and the condition of its sub-base, and that he hopes it will be in use for years to come. And that's the bottom line for Major League Baseball and for the RBI initiative in all its forms.
"This is for you, the RBI kids," said Tim Brosnan, MLB's executive vice president of business. "Use this week to learn what we all know about baseball: to learn about friendships, to learn about camaraderie, to learn about competition. To learn about winning and losing. Just learn about the joy that baseball can bring into your lives. You've got a big group of people here. If you do one thing while you're here today, find a new friend out of this whole group. And that will be your All-Star memory."
The kids will have memories on the field, and they'll have a chance to see some big league history up close over the next few days. But if you ask James, it's much more than that. It's about inculcating life lessons and stressing the importance of scholarship through sports and friendship.
"We're really stressing with both the younger kids and the older kids about the opportunity of staying at a college campus," said James. "It's not all about baseball and softball, it's about thinking about their future. And that stays with the mission of RBI in trying to create Major League citizens."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com.